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Cult Classics Revisited: MIRACLE MILE (1989) and CHERRY 2000 (1988)


(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykel T. Williamson, Denise Crosby, Kelly Minter, Kurt Fuller, O-Lan Jones, Robert DoQui, Earl Boen, Danny De La Paz, Claude Earl Jones, Alan Rosenberg, Diane Delano, Alan Berger, Brian Thompson, Jenette Goldstein, Edward Bunker, Howard Swain, voice of Raphael Sbarge. (R, 88 mins)

Despite rave reviews from critics, MIRACLE MILE wasted no time vacating theaters as quickly as possible. Opening on May 19, 1989, the last weekend before that year's big summer kickoff (back when Memorial Day weekend signified the beginning of the summer movie season) and the same day as the immortal ROAD HOUSE, the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, the inferior horror sequel FRIGHT NIGHT PART II, and the teen comedy HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, it landed with a thud in 15th place. A box-office bomb, MIRACLE MILE has gone on to become one of the essential cult films of the 1980s and has just been released on an extras-packed Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. An apocalyptic AFTER HOURS or DR. STRANGELOVE remade as a meet-cute date movie that also prefigures Don McKellar's 1998 film LAST NIGHT, MIRACLE MILE has lovestruck trombone player Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards, also the star of HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE) charming waitress Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) after spotting her at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. As Julie goes to her night shift at a coffee shop, Harry tells her he'll meet her outside when she's off at midnight, but a power outage causes him to oversleep and he doesn't get there until nearly 4:00 am. Julie's long gone and after leaving a desperate message for her, a romantic comedy enters the TWILIGHT ZONE as he picks up a ringing pay phone. On the other end of the line is Chip (voice of Raphael Sbarge), who's calling from a missile solo, frantically explaining that the nukes have been launched and they've got an hour before they hit. Chip thinks he's talking to his father, but dialed the wrong area code. Chip's ranting goes silent when Harry hears gunshots, followed by a voice warning "Forget everything you've heard and go back to sleep."

Still not sure if it's an elaborate prank, Harry describes the phone call to Julie's co-workers and overnight regulars at the diner. Disbelief escalates when a well-dressed coffee shop regular (Denise Crosby) makes some calls and finds out that many of America's politicians are mysteriously away in South America. Panic immediately ensues, with cook Fred (Robert DoQui) herding everyone into his food truck and heading to the airport, where the well-dressed woman has chartered several flights out of L.A. Fred refuses to go the opposite direction so Harry can pick up Julie, so Harry jumps out of the back of the truck and begins an hour-long odyssey into the night to get Julie--the woman he's waited his entire life to find--and get out of L.A., which is rapidly descending into a state of lawless chaos as the word of the world's end has quickly spread, making Harry wonder if he's needlessly incited a Chicken Little panic.

Steve De Jarnatt at a recent MIRACLE MILE screening
Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, MIRACLE MILE took nearly a decade to get made the way its creator intended. A hot property coming out of film school with his acclaimed 1978 short film TARZANA (with cult actors Timothy Carey and Eddie Constantine), De Jarnatt started shopping his MIRACLE MILE script shortly after, generating plenty of buzz but always getting the same reaction: the ending had to be changed. To De Jarnatt, the bleak ending was key to what made the film work, and the near-decade-long ordeal in making the MIRACLE MILE he wanted to make likely had a major hand in him shifting gears and abandoning feature films to focus on TV series work. While MIRACLE MILE languished in perpetual turnaround throughout the 1980s, De Jarnatt sought out journeyman gigs--he scored a co-writing credit on the 1983 SCTV cult comedy STRANGE BREW and directed the "Man from the South" episode of the rebooted ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS on NBC. He was offered films like THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER (1981) and PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) and he was in talks to direct DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985) before he left the project and was replaced by Susan Seidelman. De Jarnatt ultimately bought back the MIRACLE MILE script to ensure it would be made his way or not at all (on the MIRACLE MILE Blu-ray commentary with film critic Walter Chaw, De Jarnatt says "I was perceived as being arrogant, but I wasn't being arrogant...I just wanted to make my movie"). Still lacking the pull to get MIRACLE MILE made, De Jarnatt stashed it away and went to work on the post-apocalyptic action/romance hybrid CHERRY 2000 for Orion, who shelved it for three years before sending it straight to video in late 1988. By the time CHERRY 2000's belated and unceremonious release came about, De Jarnatt already had MIRACLE MILE in the can.

Support came from Hemdale Film Corporation, the indie that had just hit the respectable big time by backing Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning PLATOON (1986). Not only did Hemdale chief John Daly love De Jarnatt's script, he insisted that the downbeat ending remain intact. Figuring he'd have to make some concessions, De Jarnatt shot a somewhat less bleak--but still bleak--ending and Daly disapproved. "No," the supportive producer advised. "Let's rip their hearts out." Hemdale's credits included favorites like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), but they were hitting their artistic and commercial pinnacle around the time they gave the green light to MIRACLE MILE. Over 1986-87, the company produced the feel-good sleeper hit HOOSIERS, Oliver Stone's SALVADOR and PLATOON, Tim Hunter's grim RIVER'S EDGE, and Bernardo Bertolucci's epic THE LAST EMPEROR. Their fortunes would quickly wane over 1988-89 with box-office under-performers like CRIMINAL LAW, SHAG, and STAYING TOGETHER, and outright bombs like HOTEL COLONIAL, BUSTER, THE BOOST, COHEN AND TATE, THE TIME GUARDIAN, and the Nicolas Cage-eats-a-cockroach classic VAMPIRE'S KISS. They never had a moneymaker after THE LAST EMPEROR, and by the time MIRACLE MILE came out in 1989, nearly two years after it was shot, Hemdale was starting to run on fumes before sputtering to a quiet end in 1994 with the animated film THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN.

"It seems every year, more people find it," De Jarnatt explains on the commentary. Like most Hemdale releases in 1989, MIRACLE MILE played to empty theaters, but it's managed to find a place in the consciousness of the cult movie collective. Along with the NYC-set AFTER HOURS and John Landis' L.A.-set INTO THE NIGHT (1985), it's one of the great "night" movies of the 1980s, the kind of film that brilliantly captures the look and feel of a city in the wee hours of the morning and that distinct L.A. flavor with its desolate streets ("New York is the city that never sleeps," De Jarnatt says, "but L.A. goes to bed at ten o'clock"), oddball characters, absurdist humor ("Fuck Joyce Brothers!"), and its extremely effective score by Tangerine Dream (De Jarnatt only worked at night while writing the script, and did so while listening to the duo's soundtrack to William Friedkin's SORCERER). It's a distinct product of its era--with pay phones, TV stations that sign off after 2:00 am, and the all-consuming fear of nuclear war--but it's aged very well. Sure, some of the visual effects reveal just how little money with which De Jarnatt had to work, and the fashions unquestionably date the film in the late '80s, but the best things about it stand the test of time, particularly the vivid performances of the cast. Everyone from Edwards and Winningham down to the character player with the smallest bit all get their moments--from the ensemble at the diner (most of the surviving supporting actors all reunite for a group interview on the bonus features) to '50s western and sci-fi hero John Agar, who's just terrific as Julie's grandfather, setting aside his 15-year argument with his estranged wife (Lou Hancock) as the two reconcile on what Harry knows will be the last night of their lives. MIRACLE MILE is a film that has stuck with the few people who saw it in 1989, and it's obviously an important one to everyone involved (Edwards and Winningham also have an intervew on the Blu-ray), all of whom look back on it with nothing but fond memories and are clearly happy that its reputation has grown.

(US - 1988)

Directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Written by Michael Almereyda. Cast: Melanie Griffith, David Andrews, Ben Johnson, Tim Thomerson, Pamela Gidley, Harry Carey Jr., Brion James, Michael C. Gwynne, Larry Fishburne, Marshall Bell, Jennifer Mayo, Cameron Milzer, Robert Z'Dar, Jack Thibeau, Howard Swain. (PG-13, 99 mins)

Prior to MIRACLE MILE, De Jarnatt made his feature directing debut with CHERRY 2000, a dystopian action sci-fi romance that at times seems to be going for some ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI-style eccentricity. Orion Pictures had no idea what to do with CHERRY 2000, which completed filming in 1985 and saw its release date shuffled multiple times throughout 1986 and 1987 before it was shelved indefinitely. Orion ultimately released it directly to video in November 1988, seven months before the already-completed MIRACLE MILE hit screens and just a month before star Melanie Griffith's breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Nichols' WORKING GIRL.

In the year 2017 with most of America a desert wasteland and unemployment at 40%, Sam Treadwell (David Andrews), a successful white-collar exec at a recycling business, is heartbroken when his cherished robot lover Cherry (Pamela Gidley) short-circuits and fries during a bout of vigorous lovemaking on a floor flooded by an overflowing dishwasher. Cherry was one of the last of the priceless 2000 line, and when Sam manages to salvage her data chip, he becomes obsessed with doing whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to find a pristine Cherry 2000 to replace his beloved unit. To do this requires the toughest tracker in the area to get him to Zone 7, the location of the last remaining Cherry warehouse, and he finds her in the desolate helltown of Glory Hole: renowned bounty hunter E. Johnson (Griffith). On their way to Zone, located in what was once Las Vegas, they bicker back and forth, with E. Johnson chiding Sam for loving a robot and Sam developing feelings for E. Johnson but unable to let go of his cherished Cherry. They eventually get some help from wily old tracker Six-Fingered Jake (Ben Johnson) and cross paths with treacherous Snappy Tom (Harry Carey Jr), the owner of the Last Chance Brothel & Gas before the introduction of chief villain Lester (Tim Thomerson), who rules what's left of a sand-covered Vegas.

Written not by De Jarnatt but Michael Almereyda (best known for his modern update of HAMLET with Ethan Hawke) from a story by Lloyd Fonvielle (THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE), CHERRY 2000 is a little silly at times, but it gets a lot of mileage out of a very likable performance by Griffith as the tough and charming E. Johnson, and it really picks up with the arrival of Thomerson, then fresh off TRANCERS, as the ruthless but hapless Lester. It's also enjoyable to see old-school western stalwarts like Johnson and Carey dropped into the middle of such a goofy setting, but CHERRY 2000 has a hard time getting by the black hole in the center that is human charisma vacuum David Andrews. Had the studio's original choice for Sam--a then-little-known Kevin Costner, who backed out after doing FANDANGO, SILVERADO, and AMERICAN FLYERS in quick succession--made himself available, the film likely would've had a more magnetic hero and more box office potential once THE UNTOUCHABLES and NO WAY OUT became big hits in 1987. Andrews has had a busy career in supporting roles and guest spots on TV--with his major series lead coming on NBC's short-lived MANN AND MACHINE in 1992--but there's a reason he never became a star. He plays Sam as whiny, needy, and even a little bit creepy, and while it still would've been silly, Costner would've at least been able to more convincingly sell Sam's devotion to Cherry without coming off in such an unappealing way. Still, CHERRY 2000 plays a bit better now than it did in 1988. It works it fits and starts, but it's a generally enjoyable and appealingly odd fusion of love story, western, and post-apocalypse, and shows what could've been a recurrent De Jarnatt theme of romance blossoming under the unlikeliest of circumstances. When the filmmaker seemingly removed himself from the game after the box-office failure of MIRACLE MILE, making ends meet with TV assignments on shows like THE X-FILES, ER, and LIZZIE MCGUIRE, cult cinema's had a potentially unique voice largely silenced for 25 years. With the Blu-ray releases of De Jarnatt's two forgotten late '80s gems, perhaps it's time for that voice to be heard again.

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